Emily Is Away

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Online communication follows its own particular rules, as anybody knows who has ever composed a tweet or sent an instant message. We must be casual but not too casual. Capitalizing our sentences can feel stuffy. Finishing every sentence with a period can feel aloof. A studious use of commas signals that we’re trying too hard. In general, messages should be stripped to their essentials but no further, lest we descend into inscrutable sarcasm. The differences between these three messages are monumental, as anybody knows who has ever received the third:

hey!
hey
hey.

Emily Is Away, a game by Kyle Seeley, captures these dynamics in an interactive story that simulates AOL Instant Messenger conversations circa 2002. The interface and sound effects are spot-on; the main menu apes the Windows XP login screen, and the audio sounds as if it was ripped from old AIM installations. The game follows a branching choose-your-own-adventure path, and messages are “typed” by hitting any key on the keyboard. This pretend-typing is jarring at first, but ultimately lends a satisfying tactile component to the simulation. The game does not attempt to recreate old chat programs—it’s rendered in a chunky, obviously fake pixel style—but it perfectly matches the hazy images of memory. Throw some Postal Service on in the background and Emily Is Away might as well be a time machine.

Cynics will whiff the ominous odor of nostalgia in a project like this. Gamers, perhaps more than fans of any other medium, are sold the products of their youth over and over again, and Emily Is Away targets a specific demographic: college students around 2002 to 2006. But Emily Is Away, despite letting users select Blink-182 and Mean Girls chat icons, does not want merely to recall pop culture. Instant messaging is the dominant medium today, but the kids on AIM were some of the first to navigate its intricacies.

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Emily Is Away begins by asking for your real name and screen name, and you can enter anything you want (an increasingly rare option in real social networks). The player character is never identified as a specific person, gender, or sexuality, although I and others I know get the impression of a straight man. The story is divided into chapters based on years, each chapter containing a conversation between the player and “emerly35.”

Early conversations focus on teenage posturing, on which parties you’re going to and which bands you like. As the years pass, conversations turn to college life, future careers, and high school memories. These conversations, although brief, peek into an intense relationship between two friends grappling with romantic feelings, as well as the widening distance between them as they grow into different people.

Most of the relationship happens off-screen. Important moments are described in allusive language, the details left to the player’s imagination. You may not be able to connect every dot, but a picture emerges nonetheless. We all understand, in one way or another, how growing up challenges old relationships. Seeley writes with a perfect ear for how people communicate online. Messages peppered with just the right amount of lols and exclamation points mean the conversation is going well; messages that grow suddenly short and proper portend a serious talk.

One message appears on screen more than any other: “emerly35 is typing….” The typing notification, one of the most important aspects of online communication, is fraught with anxiety. Why is this person taking so long? Why did they stop? What did they delete? Emily Is Away understands that online communication lacks the give-and-take of spoken words but is not quite a turn-based exchange. There is great meaning in when you reply and when you let the other person know you’re replying. The player character will also type and delete messages, revising sentences in both obvious and subtle ways. As players, we’re allowed to witness these revisions, and we’re left to wonder what emerly35 thinks of our typing notifications.

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Emily Is Away feels like a document to me. Yes, it’s fiction, but if in twenty years someone asked me what AOL Instant Messenger was like, I’d point them here. It is certainly more faithful to my experience than the clumsy portrayals of chatting and texting in movies and TV shows, with close-ups of computer screens or absurd pop-ups. These conversations can find their proper rhythm in a video game, a rhythm that has never fit well in other media.

Some have written that people today are too “connected,” that there is something wrong—or at least different—in a culture where people can’t go five minutes without checking their phones. Emily Is Away traces a different sort of story. Just because someone is on your contact list doesn’t mean you can talk to them. Just because someone appears present doesn’t mean they are. Think of all the people on your various friends lists you haven’t spoken to in years, those you remember every now and then when they drift past in the flotsam of your Facebook feed: the coworkers, the childhood friends, the exes. The slow fading of a relationship is made all the more sad by the seeming possibility of connection, of the image of someone online but away.

Grayson is a writer and editor living in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @vghmag.